The Battle for Ivory

The African continent in synonymous with conflict and civil wars as struggle for power creates deep divisions.  But in the Western African nation of The Republic of Côte d'Ivoire or Ivory Coast the story had been starkly different. After its independence from France in 1960, stability under its first President Félix Houphouët-Boigny settled in with ease for the next three decades. However, beneath the tranquility lay a nation in turmoil whose fate in time would be no different from its other African neighbors. Once seen as an oasis of peace and prosperity, Ivory Coast now found itself spiraling into a state of chaos and uncertainty.

The complexities of the present crisis have bearings in a demographics made up of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds with as many as 65 languages. One-third of the population is foreigners. So it was no surprise that Houphouët-Boigny ruled his nation with an iron fist to maintain a fragile harmony amidst deep economic, ethnic and religious divisions. One of the leading producers of cocoa in the world, Ivory Coast was also known for its pineapple and palm oil exports. Interestingly, Houphouët-Boigny did not seek to cut away from the colonial past instead forging closer ties with France. It was a beneficial alliance especially as the support of a European power did steer Ivory Coast to seek better economic opportunities.

In the early 1980’s, the fate of Ivory Coast began to waiver as global recession and droughts began to take a toll on an economy which had so far been steady in its growth. By 1990’s, Houphouët-Boigny power began to wane as people took to the streets protesting the growing corruption and crime and with his death in 1993an era had come to an end. His favored successor Aimé Henri Konan Bédié took control and after re-elections in 1995, began to strengthen his political hold over the country by imprisoning many of the opposition members.  Soon an uneasy political calm settled and things on the surface seemed peaceful. 

Bédié had also created the simplistic unifying concept of Ivoirité or "Ivority" that encompassed the common cultural values of all people from Ivory Coast. But amidst political rivalry and the rise of the northern presidential candidate Alassane Outtara the word lost its meaning as Bédié began to give it a more nationalist and xenophobic character. The Supreme Court ruling that disqualified Outtara from participating due to his Burkinabé nationality only added to a rising tension. Both of Outtara’s parents came from Burkina Faso and settled in the predominantly Muslim north with large number of impoverished immigrant workers from Mali and Burkina.  So the idea of Ivoirité that should have been a celebration of unifying national identity in reality had created a sense exclusion that divided people on ethnic lines. 

In 1999, France gave refuge to Bédié as a military coup placed General Robert Guéï in power.  It was not a violent transition as one would expect with the new leadership comfortably taking charge. Things did improve for a while again as corruption, crime and the economy became issues to be dealt with swift urgency.
In 2000, Presidential elections were held as Outtara still found himself left out on the fringes. Guéï did reform the Bill which prevented non-citizens to run for presidency.  Obviously, it was far from welcomed by the supporters of Outtara. There was violence and unrest leading up to the election, although the elections itself was relatively peacefully with Laurent Koudou Gbagbo being announced the winner. 

Gbagbo’s tenure was short-lived as a visit to Italy led an armed rebellion back home to take root with efficiency. The Ivorian Civil War had begun to unfold as deployment of French troops and militia fighters from Liberia and Sierre Leone in the West only complicated the situation. Gbagbo returned to a nation on fire.  A fragile accord between Gbagbo and the rebels was signed under the "Government of National Unity.” The French moved their troops to the Western borders and curfews were cautiously lifted. A  Zone of Confidence was etched with the UN Peacekeepers brought to maintain the balance. But peace sought with closed fists is an illusion that breaks soon enough. Therefore, it was inevitable before the alliance between the rebels and Gbagbo would deteriorate. 

The political stability continued with sporadic violence, death and instability. Gbagho’s  official mandate as President ended by 2005 only to be extended  by another year by the United National Security Council as part of a resolution by the African Union.  By 2007, after much turbulence, the rebels known as the New Forces or Forces Nouvelles de Côte d'Ivoire, a coalition formed during the Ivorian Civil war and the government signed a new peace deal under which the leader of the New Forces Guillaume Soro became the Prime Minister. 

In November 2010, the long overdue elections finally took place with the help of the United Nations.  Alassane Ouattara was recognized as the new President of The Ivory Coast. But Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept this defeat and saw it more as a larger conspiracy by the former Colonial French power to keep its economic interest in the country. 

Laurent Gbagbo refused to step down even though the United Nations, which helped organize the election, recognized Alassane Ouattara as the new leader. Things went from bad to worse as streets turned into battlefields and guns bellowed with civilians caught in a second Ivorian Civil War. The international community from the African Union to the European Union in a rare show of unanimity responded with sanctions to oust Mr. Gbagbo.  Peace seemed elusive as negotiations broke down and violence continued to permeate throughout Ivory Coast.
The stage for the final showdown was set in the important city of Abidjan and the citadel of Gbagbo’s power. However, the relentless onslaught by pro-Ouattara forces only got stronger as they seized control over towns and cities. The lives of civilians torn between two warring fraction seemed like an endless sea of misery. Then the UN and French forces moved in swiftly as apprehension over the safety of civilians and their forces became a concern. Gbagbo’s residence was raided and confusion reigned over who actually took him into custody. At the end, the Ouattara's envoy to the UN took the credit as the French stepped aside from any involvement. 

The months of violence saw more than 3,000 deaths, reports of human rights abuse and chaos. But a fragile calm has settled in as a nation embraces change. But there is also a sense of hope and apprehension of the uncertainties that lie ahead with a new leadership and the difficult path of reconciliation and peace. 

By arrangement with Global Times Magazine

Image (c) Rago Arts 


More by :  Fatima Chowdhury

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